From rugby’s trapdoor to Olympic captain – Billy Dardis leading Ireland’s Sevens into unchartered territory

Billy Dardis will lead out Ireland at the Olympics (Image: ©INPHO/Manuel Blondeau)

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Billy Dardis feared that he was heading for rugby's scrapheap when he joined Ireland's Sevens programme – instead he's captaining his country at the Olympics.

The approach came for him to make the switch after he didn't see any game time in his first year as a pro with Leinster.

Dardis saw it as the signal that his hopes of a career in the game were ending.

Instead, he is in Japan with his team-mates preparing for Monday and the start of their pool matches with South Africa, the US and Kenya.

"When I started playing Sevens I didn’t actually want to because I was like, ‘if I go and play Sevens, it means I’m being let go by my province Leinster’," the 26-year-old said.

"That’s the way I looked at it because there was nothing going on.

“But only over the last few years we’ve got lots of guys who have played Sevens going and playing for Ireland's 15s – Hugo Keenan and Shane Daly, for example.

“Then the actual performances we’ve put on in the last few years, the tournaments we get to play in and the cities we get to travel to – I think players have started to realise ‘this is pretty cool, this is a cool lifestyle for a few years’.

"It’s become a more attractive pathway for players to bounce in and out because they can see the benefits, how much fun you can have on it."

It is five years now since the Naas man said goodbye to the Leinster set-up and the 15s game.

But for all the outward appearance of a more laidback set-up, the Ireland Sevens would not have risen up the ladder from their humble beginnings in 2016 without serious graft.

Ireland's Billy Dardis.
(Image: ©INPHO/Manuel Blondeau)

"We have to transfer our lives onto the pitch," said Dardis.

"You have to be able to flip a switch very quickly. At a weekend you play six games, so you’re up and down and up and down and have to flip that switch pretty quickly.

“Off the pitch, it’s great fun and anyone who comes into the set-up, it’s so relaxed.

"It’s just a bunch of blokes who have all had their time in the dumps, gone through that devastation but they’re all good, hardworking blokes and everyone is allowed to be themselves.

"You can see that with the characters in our squad.

“We’ve got a Love Island superstar, a social media influencer, guys who are lawyers, qualified solicitors, guys doing Masters, we just have a unique group of lads and it is good craic.

“We get to travel the world together and it would be just 12 on trips so it is quite personal.

"It’s not when you’re in a 15s camp and there are 50 players, like an American Football team – and you might not chat to someone for two or three weeks. You might not ever chat to someone.

"But it’s different in Sevens, we’re all just best mates and it’s so enjoyable.

"The guys who have come into the squad in the last year can’t wait to get away to, say, Sydney or Hamilton – you can head off to the other side of the world for two weeks and have great craic.

Billy McNulty was there right at the beginning of the Ireland Sevens journey in 2016
(Image: ©INPHO/Manuel Blondeau)

“But at the same time it’s a serious business. We go there to do a job, and that’s the side of things people might not see."

Billy McNulty was there right at the beginning of the Ireland Sevens journey in 2016 – when the new recruits travelled to Zenica in Bosnia to play on a municipal pitch misshapen by hammer throw dents.

They've come a long way and McNulty, one of only a few who have made it from post to wire, remarks on the "resilience" that was required to stick with the programme through unglamorous times.

What the journey into the elite end of the game, the World Series, did do was forge a team spirit that is second to none.

McNulty said: “Brian O’Driscoll did a thing a few years ago on the English squad and he mentioned about 'deadweight'.

"You just get caught out so quick in Sevens, so that deadweight can be found in so many forms, whether it is physically or mentally.

"It’s so difficult to have anybody on the pitch that isn’t up to it. You just have to have a belief in everybody around you, that they're up to it.

"When you do that you buy in – and when you buy in, then when someone makes a mistake you literally cover it up. You’re there for each other."

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